Bassanio’s sexuality can be examined and scrutinized despite his seemingly heteronormative actions and intentions. The homoerotic undertone of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is easily discussed by analyzing the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio. Bassanio’s commitment to Portia, however, does not dictate his sexuality or establish his heterosexuality. Remembering that Bassanio’s relationships take place during a time when homosexuality is a sin and a punishable crime, the audience can translate Bassanio’s actions as the actions of one who is assumed heterosexual by societal default. His attraction to Portia is not being dismissed just because he is not heterosexual. Instead, modern audiences can discuss the idea of bisexuality or a fluid sexuality.
First we can examine the love triangle of Bassanio, Portia and Antonio. The heterosexual love of Bassanio and Portia cannot be pursued or consummated without the aid of Antonio. Shakespeare has made it clear that the path to Bassanio’s heterosexual love cannot seperate itself from Antonio’s homosexual love. Josephy Pequigney analyzes this relationship between the three characters. He points out how even Portia acknowledges the triangular nature of her, Bassanio’s and Antonio’s relationship. The love Portia and Antonio both have for Bassanio bonds them (Pequigney 212). The heterosexual relationship will never stand alone.
Next, we can study the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. Antonio pledges his life to Bassanio, as one would in one’s wedding vows. Bassanio does not exactly reciprocate, but he does accept the sacrifice. He later gives his ring to the disguised Portia as a repayment for saving Antonio’s life. This can be noted for the fact that he has 1.) given his ring, a sign of his heterosexual commitment, to someone he believes to be a man and 2.) gives this ring in repayment/exchange for Antonio’s life, as if committing to Antonio as a husband.
Finally, Portia’s direct relationship with Bassanio when scrutinized is questionable in its complete heterosexuality. In the act of cross dressing, she has introduced a another element of gender/sex anxiety. Joan Howard discusses the anxiety theater induced in Renaissance through Elizabethan society in terms of gender and sexuality in relation to cross dressing. Dressing as the other gender is forbidden by the Bible, but was a regular part of the theater. Actors were men, but would have cross dress in order play women. In the Merchant of Venice the line between gender and sex is blurred even more as actors were not only cross dressing as women, but female characters would then be cross dressing as men. Such disregard for gender/sex lines was considered dangerous as it would cause “sexual confusion” and “mistaking” (Howard 433). For Bassanio, though there was a definite case of mistaking, perhaps it was a clue towards sexual clarity. The female he chooses to love is able to cross the gender/sex line via dress, implicating Bassanio as able to love either gender.
I believe Bassanio falls into a category of people who did not have the chance to ever explore their sexuality. Because his ultimate romantic interest is a woman, it may be easiest to declare him heterosexual. It is certainly the most comfortable category to fall into in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare, however, is not interested in comfort and has written a much more dynamic character. With a critical eye, Bassanio’s sexuality is most definitely open to discussion.
Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-40.